Monday, March 7, 2016

Wings of Love

It started last spring. It may have been a subscription to Ranger Rick, and an insert entitled "Choosing the Perfect Pet." It may have been a trip to a friend's house where she first held a parakeet. However it started, once the thought of owning a parakeet entered Hannah's mind she had trouble thinking of anything else.

"I have to share the gerbils and the cat with all my siblings. I need a pet that's just my own," she argued.  "Parakeets are so much fun! You can play with them and teach them tricks. They're very social. I just want one sooo bad!"

By June of last year I was growing tired of Hannah's pleading, and slightly more sympathetic. I had a hard time looking into her little longing eyes because I saw so much of myself in her. I had been the child in my family who wanted an entire zoo in my room. I grew up with three rabbits, a dog, fish, mice, and yes, a parakeet. When I was thirteen I had pled with my own parents to let me get a parakeet, and I had used every reason that Hannah was now throwing at me. I had loved my blue and white bird, Kiana, for six lovely years before she died. Kiana even came to college with me for two years and was something of a dorm mascot. Two of my college friends got parakeets after they met Kiana.

How could I look into my own daughter's eyes and tell her "no?" So at last I sighed and said, "Go talk to your father about it."

"Absolutely not," was Matt's response. "No. No way. We already have two gerbils and a cat, and you apparently don't care about them anymore. No. We're not going to turn into a zoo."

Hannah's little heart shattered into a million pieces in front of us both right there. Rounds of reasoning began as Hannah attempted to counter each one of Matt's objections. She brought it up again and again over the following days until Matt decided to put a stop to it.

"Hannah," he said, "owning a parakeet is a big responsibility and a long-term commitment. I wouldn't even consider it until you were at least ten years old. So I won't talk about this with you again until after your tenth birthday. I may consider it at that point, if you are still interested in it. If you bring it up again, I'm just going to say no."

At the time, Hannah's birthday was nine months away, and Matt was quite confident that Hannah's parakeet-enraptured phase would pass before her birthday came. It seemed like a great solution at the time. The only problem is that as the months passed by, Matt's direction to postpone the discussion became, in Hannah's mind, a promise that she would get a parakeet for her tenth birthday. Matt tried to put a stop to that thinking each time it came up, reminding her that that wasn't what he had said. But that didn't matter to a nine-year-old dreamer.

Nine months later, Hannah was more ready than ever to own a parakeet. She had been checking out books on parakeet ownership and studying in preparation. She was counting down the days and counting the ways her life was about to be more wonderful. When I reminded her once again that Dad had never promised to agree to this, she replied, "Well, he could't say no now. I've been waiting my whole life for this! That would just be cruel."

About a week before Hannah's birthday I asked Matt if he had made a decision. "I don't think I have any choice at this point," he said. And he really didn't.

Hannah didn't want anything for her birthday except cash and Petco gift cards. She wanted to be sure she would have enough to buy everything she needed for her feathery friend. When she was showered with $80.00 at her party and Matt finally gave her the official OK, she almost fainted from excitement.

Yesterday, Hannah could hardly breathe on the five minute drive to Petco. She was more giddy that a girl in a white dress and veil. Matt had a little fun with her and played Christina Perry's A Thousand Years on the radio while we drove.

We came home with a cage, food, treats, toys, and a beautiful little female indigo parakeet, whom Hannah named Avalyn Joy. Hannah cushioned every bump in the car ride, and spoke in a sweet hushed voice to the frightened bird in the cardboard box as we set up the cage in her room. Avalyn, however, was less thrilled with this meeting than Hannah. Once in her cage, she froze stone-still in a corner and sat without moving for over an hour. Hannah lay quietly and patiently on her bed, waiting for Avalyn to warm up to her new home, but the bird refused to move.

Hannah came to ask me if I thought Avalyn was OK. I explained that she had been through a lot that day and that she was probably scared and would need some time to adjust.

This morning, Hannah woke me up bouncing into my room all giggles and chatter, "Mom, guess what?! Avalyn is so active! She's a gymnast! And she's been eating, and drinking, and chewing on her cuttle bone, and swinging on her swing! One time she jumped off her swing onto her perch and the swing swung and hit her in the bottom and scared her! It was so funny! And she's been talking to me, and she just loves me! She really does! She is the best!"

I have been trying to remind Hannah all day to take the bonding process slowly and to give the poor bird some time to adjust, but it seems that I am the fool. Today Avalyn Joy has truly bonded to Hannah. She has willingly ventured out of her cage and spent a good amount of the day out in the girls' room, learning to trust Hannah and enjoy her company. They whistled to each other, cuddled, and played the whole day through. And the two of them couldn't be happier.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hannah's Turning Ten, and it's Tough

Hannah and I have been butting heads more lately. A lot more.

She is bright, witty, and a master of words. She has the leadership skills of Margaret Thatcher combined with the magical entertainment skills of David Copperfield. She has been rounding up groups of kids and leading them like the pied piper since she was four years old. Hannah shimmers like sunshine drops on dew-misted daisies as long as people will follow her lead, as long as the world is comfortably within her control. But she shrivels like petals over a flame the instant she feels her control slipping.

Hannah's world has been shaken too much lately. She struggled the most with moving houses. She struggled the most with changing churches. She feels my stress and Matt's when we silently worry about her sisters' health. And when she cannot control these big things, she craves control over the little things in life all the more.

In the last week Loveway was cancelled due to ice, the kids' computer crashed and lost some of her favorite documents, and Hannah learned that her birthday party would have to be combined with Toby's since his had been cancelled when he came down with strep throat two weeks ago. The weather has been perpetually gloomy, Matt has been perpetually busy, and Hannah has begun lashing out at others. She has been so bossy, so moody, and so irrational that I have had very little patience for her.

Naomi and Emma are growing up and coming into their own personalities, and they have been pushing back against Hannah's leadership now. Fights are breaking out more now as Hannah struggles to maintain her right to lead, while Naomi and Emma assert their right to have their own ideas.

Hannah and I have had talk after talk about her wonderfully strong leadership skills, but how it is too tempting for her to use them for evil. We've talked about how she tends to devalue other people's opinions, feelings, or perspectives. We've talked about her tendency to order others around, or when that fails, masterfully manipulate them into feeling they've done something wrong. Because Hannah is such a strong presence in our family and has often walked all over her siblings, I've pushed back hard on Hannah lately, determined to help her see when she is being wrong or manipulative so that she can learn to control her leadership skills and use them well.

My ears have been scanning her conversations, and I have been quick to jump on her each time I hear her slipping into manipulation. Two days ago I asked the kids to all go into the living room to sort their own clothes out of the several baskets of clean laundry so that they could fold them and put them away. Immediately, Hannah took charge. "OK, Toby, you put your clothes on the red chair, and Elijah, you put your clothes on the couch," she ordered without a second thought.

"Hey!" Emma protested, "I wanted to put my clothes on the red chair!"

"Well, Emma," Hannah rebutted, "you can put your clothes on the love seat. I have it all worked out so that we each have our own spot."

But Emma has decided lately that she too has a brain, and that she just might like to choose things for herself, so she protested further.

"Fine, Emma!" Hannah muttered under her breath, "you can have the dirty red chair if you want to, and Toby can have the nice clean love seat."

I immediately called Hannah out of the room and presented her with the irrefutable facts of her most recent episode of unjust bossiness topped with manipulation whipped cream. She responded by flat-out denying the evidence.

"I never said that!" she protested.

"Yes you did! I heard you with my own ears," I argued back.

"Well, that isn't what I meant," she rerouted, followed with, "Emma didn't want the red chair," "I never called it dirty," and finally topped with the teenage-worthy, "You just don't understand."

Having been through this very scenario a mind-boggling number of times in the last week, my blood boiled here. It is so easy to lose my temper, especially when I lose sight of Hannah's underlying emotional needs that drive this behavior.

But it seems that in the last few days my reasoning, and my pleading, and my pestering with Hannah over this issue has begun to hit home for her. She has begun to acknowledge that she does, in fact, have some unhealthy tendencies towards dictatorship. She has begun to be able see how this looks and feels for other people around her. Most recently, she has come to two terrifying conclusions: that this behavior is actually unfair and hurtful to those she loves, and that it is so ingrained and comes so naturally that she isn't entirely in control of it. This has led to a bit of an identity crisis for Hannah. If she can't be in control of her circumstances, and she can't control everyone around her, who is she? What will happen to her? Will people still like her? What if she can't change herself, will we still love her?

Little Hannah is growing up. Growing up is so messy.

Tonight Hannah wanted to talk. She wanted to tell me that too much has been changing for her. "Even my own mind is changing," she said, "like how I think about other people and about God, like thinking about how Naomi and Emma feel. I worry about them a lot."

So I told her that she wasn't too big to sit on my lap yet, and then my little girl who will be ten in two more days crawled into my lap and cried, mostly I think because growing up is hard, because change is hard, because facing your own demons, admitting that they haunt you, and asking for God's grace to change them is hard.

I shed a couple tears too, because in that moment I felt a little like the world's worst mother for having been so hard on her lately. I had forgotten that Naomi and Emma aren't my only daughters who face challenges in life and who need their mother's love and strength and fight. I had forgotten that after breaking Hannah's identity, I might need to be there to help her ask for God's forgiveness, for the grace to become the considerate, selfless leader God would want her to be, and for the courage to trust his leadership in her changing life.

I tucked the kids into bed tonight again, as Matt worked very late…again. Hannah needed more than one hug, and more than one song. I sang a favorite of hers, and then I sang a version of Psalm 103 that I hadn't sung since she was a baby,

"As a father has compassion on his beloved children
So the Lord shows compassion to us
To those who fear him
And as far as the east is from the west
So far has he taken our sins from us
And as high as the heavens are over the earth
So great is his steadfast love toward us."

"Mom," Hannah said softly in the dark, "you know how sometimes I just get so emotional that I can hardly describe it? Well…I just love you so, so much right now."

"Hannah, with all of those emotions, I think you're going to make a good poet someday," I said, giving her one last hug.

I don't know where she gets it.

Well, maybe I do.